Borderlands, Failure, and Fault

You’re dual-wielding a shotgun that shoots missiles six at a time and a machine gun that fires flaming bullets.  There are six guys shooting back at you, half of them twice your size and bulging with muscles.  There’s a shirtless masked man covered in flames shouting nonsensical threats and Shakespeare lines as he sprints toward you axe in hand.  The psycho’s axe hits you before you have time to take him down, dealing far more damage than one might expect considering the barrage of bullets you’ve already taken.  You shift your attention from the gun-wielding maniacs to the axe-wielding maniac, but just as you begin whittling his health down the other bandits have had a clear chance to fire on you.  Your health drops to zero.  But you still have a chance to survive.  You’re downed and your vision is fading but if you pull off a last-minute kill you’ll come back just about good as new.  The flame-wreathed psycho was right next to you when you went down, it’ll be an easy kill to net you your “second wind” and get you back on your feet.  You turn to aim you’re missile-shooting shotgun at the psycho, and he’s gone.  Looking farther down the battlefield you can see the psycho making a sharp turn behind a large piece of corrugated metal serving as the wall of a small hut.  That’s when you realize that all of the other bandits have found themselves some nice sturdy walls to hide behind and take potshots from.  You fire impotently at them before you bleed out and die.

I like the Borderlands games.  I appreciate their manic energy that extends to both the play and the characters (if not the story).  They’re silly, insane, fun, and they know it.  But if there’s one thing that I can’t stand about them, it’s the enemy AI when you get incapacitated.  The idea behind the “second wind” mechanic is rather ingenious.  When a player has lost all of their health, they are put in a downed state where they cannot move but can still fire their gun albeit with less accuracy.  They can be revived by another player, or if the downed player manages to get a kill before their “bleed out” timer expires then they are revived with a fully recharged shield and some health.  This mechanic serves two functions: it preserves the flow of combat by not immediately forcing a player to start over when they meet failure, and it gives players an opportunity to come back without requiring AI or co-op partners to revive them.

The darkening screen and lack of iron sights makes getting a kill more difficult.

The darkening screen and lack of iron sights makes getting a kill more difficult.

But for some reason the enemy AI’s first reaction when the player gets incapacitated is to find a piece of cover to hide behind.  Why design a mechanic like “second wind” if you’re only going to program the player’s targets to ruin it?  It’s absolutely befuddling.  Not only do the enemies’ response make the whole system pointless, but it makes the player’s death even more frustrating than it would be if the whole mechanic hadn’t existed in the first place.  It presents the player with a supposed opportunity, squanders it for them, and then punishes them as if it were their fault.

Failure in any game has to be the player’s fault.  Random, unexplained, or unavoidable failure will eventually cause the player to give up and quit.  Players need to be given the tools to complete their objectives and be warned, however slightly, of possible lose states.

Notoriously hard games, like Dark Souls, need to follow these rules perfectly because their extreme difficulty means player failure is more likely and thus more scrutinized.  The key to building a difficult game is to be sure the player’s failure is their own fault and that they’re aware of that fact.  When you die in Dark Souls, your first thought isn’t, “How did that happen?” Your first thought is, “I saw him winding up his swing, why didn’t I dodge sooner?” along with unbridled rage since it’s the twenty-second time you’re facing the same boss and you keep making the same mistake and why can’t you just-

The most common thing you'll see when playing Dark Souls.

The most common thing you’ll see when playing Dark Souls.

In Borderlands, the “second wind” mechanic may be designed to be difficult to pull of in order to encourage cooperation among players.  If that’s the case, then it’s rather smartly designed, but it ignores the fact that the game can be played solo as well.  Playing by yourself in Borderlands is usually talked about less favorably because it feels so much more hollow than with friends running around, and the added frustration of failing because all of the enemies you totally could have shot a second ago have now all gone into hiding, only doubles down on the lackluster quality of the game’s single player experience.

Failure as a staple of game design is a topic that requires a lot more inspection and discussion.  Some recent games, like Prince of Persia (the reboot in 2008; I really hate that titling convention of naming the new one after the original one), have attempted to drop failure from their games altogether.  It certainly makes more sense narratively and in a game like Prince of Persia it’s preservation of the flow of gameplay can be quite beneficial.  But when it comes to the current standard of game design, the correct implementation of failure means a game is either Dark Souls or Battletoads.

– Cam

Head on over to Blackman’N Robin where my stuff goes up first and don’t forget to come back every Tuesday for more.  You can also follow me on Twitter for tweets like, “Well, I’ve finished the Game of Thrones books.  Better start them over again to prepare for the next one…”

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